In memoriam : Barry Barclay: 1944-2008
Barry Barclay told small stories with big echoes. The filmmaker, who died aged 63 last month after suffering a massive stroke at his home in Omapere, Northland, was indisputably our greatest documentarian. Yet it is worth remembering that his 1987 feature Ngati (the first by a Mäori director) captures better than any other local film what makes this country tick. It has always been and remains the film I recommend to foreigners wanting to get a handle on what makes “us” who we are.
What was striking about all his films – both fiction and non-fiction – was that, from the minutely observed experiences of small communities, he extracted overarching, even universal truths. In everything from his 1985 documentary The Neglected Miracle, a chillingly prescient study of the erosion of plant genetic diversity in the third world by seed companies working for first-world profit, to 2005’s The Kaipara Affair, the anatomy of a divided community uniting to stop the depletion of its fishery, Barclay always zoomed in close. His intention, so often and so elegantly achieved, was that the viewer emerged with a deeper and broader perspective as a result.
He also never lost sight of the fact that he was the teller of others’ stories. Routinely he screened his films first to the communities where he had made them, often before funding bodies or even producers had seen them.
Born to a Pakeha father and a Ngati Apa mother, Barclay was raised on sheep stations in the Wairarapa. He initially trained for the Roman Catholic priesthood and old associates were moved to remark this week, in reference to his lifelong abstemiousness and simplicity of lifestyle, that he may have left the monastery but the monastery never left him.
His most widely seen work, on which he collaborated with a novice historian by the name of Michael King, was Tangata Whenua, the landmark 1974 documentary series that, for the first time on television, presented Mäori life and culture as something other than a quaint and charming entertainment.
Barry was not afraid to lock horns – few of his friends had not experienced his ferocious stubbornness – but it was always in the service of the integrity of groundbreaking work. His 2006 book Mana Tuturu, an examination of the collision between Mäori and Pakeha notions of intellectual property and ownership, was a provocative and wise contribution to a debate we haven’t even really started to have yet.
Barclay’s death leaves a hole in the country’s intellectual life that will not be filled soon. In a book of essays [New Zealand Filmmakers, eds Conrich/Murray] published last year, Stuart Murray put it well: “Without Barclay, New Zealanders would be that little bit more incapable of the most important conversations they can ever have, namely the process of articulating themselves to the multiple communities that make up the islands.”
– Peter Calder
We were talking the other night – we were going to change things, we were going to tell them how it is… especially these tedious ways of bureaucratic shenanigans, it has been going on for far too long; we spoke about how we were going to challenge them – bring them into review – you said it had gone beyond being a few ranting grey beards – you said it was now a movement! – I hung on to your astute timing with such things, they are big moves and are best timed well… but now you are gone from us, so soon, so untimely, I thought we could have had at least another 10 years, maybe 20, maybe forever. It’s hard to contemplate someone like you will ever be gone.
Thirty-five years is a long time to know someone. It went far too fast.
Besides the filming and TV work we went rock climbing on Castle Hill, I was amazed at your courage, your poetry equally turned my head: Te Rua and Ngati created a different way to perceive and relate. We spent time at each other’s tables and spoke into the night; your thoughts were astute, poignant and honest, and so deeply considered. You gave everyone a sense of purpose in your world.
We were recently talking about how with TV and the news it was becoming hard to differentiate between the crap, the glib and the important, and here you are at the top of the TOP STORIES list. Phew-what Bazza, top billing!
• Film Maker Barry Barclay dies.
• Bad signs for Musharraf in early Pakistan vote count.
• Cullen confirms tax cut despite surplus fall.
• Lindsay Lohan poses naked for Marilyn Monroe ‘tribute’.
I think dear friend we can safely say, “We rest our case”.
I’ll miss your wisdom, your gentle guidance, always generous with your time and intellect. Irreplaceable.
I have been blessed to have known you: chewed the fat with you, drunk with you, worked with and loved you. You changed the way I thought, you changed the way I worked, you changed the way I saw the “larger purpose”. You made my life much more complete than I made yours. Thanks Bazza.
– Waka Attewell
It’s Sunday and National Radio has added its tribute to those paid to Barry Barclay at his tangi with an interview involving Gaylene Preston and John Reid. An observation made by John in summarising Bazz’s achievements now guides me: Barry created space for others to move in. I second Gaylene’s “Kia ora, John!”. Having met Barry back in my Telefilm Canada days in 1987, I now have a context in which to see how Bazz’s friendship and his creativity have influenced the perambulatory spaces I have occupied over the years. So I share a few of those ….
• A place called Flannigan’s: shortly after arriving back from Canada to run the Film Commission Bazz introduced me to pre-Wellywood filmmakers via an invitation to a dart game at Flannigan’s. After several inept attempts, he generously allowed me to by-pass qualifying and, I suspect, allowed me to win! That was the only time I did and darts were eventually abandoned. But Flannigan’s remained a space in which I spent many a ‘round’ with Bazz, Pacific Films stalwarts, producers like Vincent Burke and Jim Booth, varied crew and actors as we debated filmmaking in NZ, NZFC policy, and the state of the nation. Flannigan’s has gone, as have John O’Shea, Jim and now Bazz, but those times continue to inspire and those who remain much admired.
• An introduction to Mäori filmmaking: Bazz, Wi Kuki, Tama, Anne and Tungia as local Te Manu Aute gathered around my dining room table in 1989 and began my instruction on filmmaking by Mäori, for Mäori and under Mäori control. The E Tipu E Rea series was getting underway. And over the next few years at someone or other’s table we engaged in lively (and sometimes uncomfortable) debates about related issues including Te Rua (John O’Shea’s re-edit while Bazz was out of town) and Once Were Warriors (the Film Commission’s decision to invest). Bazz never gave up on his position and our nation’s achievement in film and television is now the richer for his persistence.
• The impact of Te Rua in Canada: welcomed by the Mohawk of Kahnewake at the World Film Festival in 1991, only a year after the people of Kahnewake and its sister reservation Kahnesatake had confronted the Quebec police and the Canadian Army over land rights, Te Rua’s message resonated with the festival audiences – both Mohawk and Quebecois. There was the exchange of gifts. From the Mohawk a replica of the Treaty Belt representing the Iroquois Five Nations’ welcome of the first Europeans in more optimistic times. But the carving from the Te Rua wharenui that Bazz was carrying had gone missing in transit in LA; it arrived many months later at the NZ High Commission in Canada and in 1993 I delivered it to the Mohawk. They spoke still with deep emotion of the honour they had been given in hosting Te Rua and how the film itself had helped heal their spiritual wounds. And Bazz’s koha from Te Rua remains in the longhouse.
• Inspiration for indigenous filmmakers overseas: Bazz gave me a copy of his now out-of-print guide to filmmaking In Our Own Image. And, in the years since, I have very carefully shared my copy with young indigenous filmmakers in South Australia and in Canada, and have observed how it has inspired and encouraged them. The space that Our Own Image created deserves to be nourished – so why not re-publish with a new edition to inspire the 21st century internet age? Or re-print and, with Mana Tuturu, include the space Bazz has created as part of Aotearoa New Zealand’s welcome as host of the first World Indigenous Television Broadcasting Conference in Auckland in March.
Bazz has been a valued friend, a sometimes harsh critic but always a generous guide through the spaces I have travelled. He leaves us all with extraordinary screen images, published words and sometimes shared poetry. I already miss him, his generosity and readiness to exchange ideas and his clarity in pursuing those beliefs. Too many have gone already; it’s up to us all to try to fill the infinite space he always created, when he answered the phone: “Barry Barclay”.
To his whanau, thank you for sharing Bazz with us. We are all forever in your debt.
– Judith McCann
Kua hinga te Totara o te wao nui a Tane
Barry Barclay holds an honoured place in the development of New Zealand film’s culture.
Barry was very clear about his goals for Mäori cinema and his challenges to the system were important in provoking movements that benefited indigenous voices as well as adding to the taonga of New Zealand cinema in general. Te Paepae Ataata, a new initiative for Mäori filmmakers, which he was instrumental in getting off the ground, is the most recent example of that.
While Barry’s voice was strong in its challenges to the shortcomings he saw in the establishment, it was also strong in advocating positive ways forward and his critique has brought forth fruits which I expect to be even more numerous in the future.
His legacy will be not only in his films and creative work but also in his outstanding contribution to the development of New Zealand film though encouragement of new thought and his support for developing filmmakers.
– Ruth Harley, NZFC
I first heard of Barry Barclay in 1977 when I returned from seven years in the UK. My sister told me she had composed the music for Hunting Horns – a television series of conversations with James McNeish on China – and really enjoyed the creative way the director and his team worked. Her enthusiasm sent me out to meet John O’Shea at Pacific Films, and eventually to a job there as their art director – I started just after my 30th birthday.
In my first weeks at Pacific Films I heard a lot about Barry Barclay. “Bazza this, Bazza that”, but he was nowhere to be seen. It was a bit like the opening scenes of Casablanca where they all talk about Rick until you are just dying to meet this God-like person. In that film, when he does appear, Humphrey Bogart does not disappoint – neither did Bazza.
He turned up one Friday night at a party in a mouldering mansion on Oriental Bay. It was after the pub, with our beer in kegs, raucous, so we were clutching our drinks in marmite jars and yelling at one another in the hall. He had seen my 8mm movie and was impressed. Good Lord, I thought – he really does seem to mean it! (This was the first person to give me the impression I might have a chance at filmmaking.) Then he asked me about my recent spot at Pacific. I told him I didn’t have the foggiest about art direction, but that John said I could have a go at other things at Pacific as well – like camera, editing etc, so I could find out what I really wanted to do.
Bazza looked at me intently. “What is it you really want to do,” he said. It wasn’t a question – more a challenge. “Well…,” I hesitated, plucking up courage to own up to something that until that moment had been a deeply kept secret in my heart. “Well, I think I’d like to try the directing,” I trailed off – thinking how presumptuous and stupid that sounded.
His reaction was unexpected and very cool. “Well you’d better get on with it, you’re old enough.”
So I did.
And spent half the time arguing with him and the other half in long conspiracies. I’ll miss him. I will miss his implacable opposition.
– Gaylene Preston
Barry Barclay, as well as being one of Aotearoa’s most perceptive and intelligent filmmakers, had a glorious history with NZ On Air, along with other funders and “establishment” organisations. We helped fund several of his works, of course – but it was our frequent failure to live up to his considerable expectations that kept the relationship lively and endlessly interesting.
Thus far Barry has been the only programme-maker to camp out, complete with placards, for three nights on the median strip outside our office (protesting at the absence of a Mäori drama in the Sunday Theatre strand – we got the message!). And he called us “gutless” only last August, about our Rautaki Mäori (we don’t agree, but we still get the message). The marvellous thing about Barry was his passion and clear mind in tirelessly advocating for Mäori programme-makers and Mäori programmes – always with an eye on the power of creative works to educate all New Zealanders. You could rarely win an argument – but he’d always give you a hug later.
You’ve gone too soon Barry. E koro, e kore koe e warewaretia. Haere, e oki, e moe…
– Jane Wrightson, NZOA
I had the privilege of knowing Barry best as a mate, a mentor, a cultural activist and a philosopher. While a film student at Vic in the late ’80s/early ’90s I was drawn in to Baz’s world through Ngati (1987) and Te Rua (1991) and my then fresh copy of Our Own Image (1990). My first conversation with him, though, was within the context of organising documentary conferences in Auckland – one implicit purpose of which was to move across what has always seemed to me to be oddly conceived divides between university and production worlds.
Barry navigated these shoals ably as one of this country’s foremost intellectuals of living knowledges, collaborating most often with Stephen Turner and in periods of dialogue with a diverse range of other locally and internationally recognised scholars – exchanges that have contributed significantly to global understandings of indigenous or fourth cinema, as well as complex relationships between indigenous cultural treasures and intellectual property rights.
It was 1997, the period around which Film Archive kaitiakitanga protocols were being established and I wrote to Baz about permissions to screen The Spirits and the Times Will Teach (from the Tangata Whenua series) at Waipapa marae.
He wrote back explaining some of the back story to the episode – a story about mistakes acknowledged and whanau reconnecting with tupuna through moving image. Words he chose brought the people of the story to the foreground, moving between history past and the presentness of more recent encounters.
His regard for kuias Eva Rickard, Herepo Rongo and Isobel Haru is expressed with grounded warmth that glows from the page, much like the way in which characters in his films and participants in his documentaries seem to reach out from the screen.
Typically, his letter began and ended humbly, thanking me for keeping him in touch about the screening and leaving the way open to continue talking. It’s a letter that resonates even more strongly in the wake of The Kaipara Affair and Mana Tuturu – the period I got to know him best.
I’m one of the many fortunate students and scholars that Barry invited in to conversation – ka korero tonu tatou Baz, ake, ake, ake.
– Geraldene Peters
It’s been a couple of days now since the phone rang, and I heard from his sister Pauline that Barry Barclay had died.
Barry was – and remains – an absolute giant in New Zealand and the world’s film communities. He is widely and famously regarded as the first member of an Indigenous nation to direct a feature film, and often held up in New Zealand as being possibly our greatest and most influential documentary maker. But I think it’s important to remember now that Barry’s more celebrated achievements – Ngati, the Tangata Whenua series, The Feathers of Peace – were founded on the back of a long and compassionate journey of discovery of self, of others and a rigorous, vigorous, disarmingly playful and punishingly sharp mind.
“Barry is a thinker” was one deceptively obvious little nugget that cropped up during an interview in Auckland a few months ago. Obvious on the face of it; but how many people can we really apply the epithet to? Barry was capable – and though he would never mention it, he had both the training and the firepower – of great and original philosophical thought.
Get yourself a copy of Mana Tuturu – I’m sure Unity books will have them in a window display by now, even if Whitcoulls can not bring themselves to stock it – and read the opening chapters. Marvel and laugh as Barry affectionately and accurately accuses Captain Cook of “home invasion” – and then goes on to convincingly and elegantly prove beyond any talkback host’s wildest polemic exactly why ‘country’ and ‘nation’ are two very different concepts. All of that in the opening pages, and there’s still 300 to go... Enjoy.
Or make the pilgrimage to the Film Archive’s basement, and treat yourself to a viewing of Barry’s early and wildly experimental docos Ashes, Autumn Fires, or The Town that Lost a Miracle. They are still head and shoulders above most of the publicly funded obviousness that gets passed off as documentary today, and so far beyond the grasp of anything our current crop of “providers and funders” would ever contemplate as to beggar belief. Not just records of another time; these films roll out like broadcasts from another planet: a place where “pitching contests” and “expected outcomes” would be classed as criminal activities.
Barry made films from the position that the filmmaker was absolute; that everything was in the service of the film, and that the film (and its makers) served only truth. His approach to documentary especially was completely uncompromising, but somehow still malleable, adaptable, chaotic, and funny as all hell. His shoots were characterised by great humour and a constant sense of winging it with the best of them – but the results were searingly intelligent, provocative, idiosyncratic and timeless. I never actually heard Bazz say “damn the torpedoes” – though I know he loved the sentiment – but I certainly heard him mutter “bugger the producer/broadcaster/funder” a few times.
In his last couple of years, Bazz was hitting his straps with a gentle fury that probably looked like fun to the uninitiated. He was mightily enthused by the possibilities of cheap digital cameras and editing systems, and by the knowledge that soon the filmmakers would have everything they needed to make a feature or a documentary right in their own – or their communities – hands. He had a dream of a camera, an edit suite, and a broadband connection available to every marae, and a central server – administered from the NZ Film Archive – that could collate and store every second of footage that came down the pipe. I don’t doubt for a moment that, granted another year or two of life, Bazz would have made it happen. Will one of us pick up that load now?
Over the past few days – and I guess a few more times in the days ahead – you’ll hear and read a bunch of tributes that will invariably begin “Barry Barclay, the director of the film Ngati...” Well yes, Ngati is a staggering and gorgeous achievement (hell, Bazz dying might even spur the NZFC into finally making it available on DVD...). But right now, maybe it’s time to acknowledge some of the man’s work that might be about to vanish into the basements and memories of the many of us that he made friends of.
I was a barman when I first met him, I saw the tail end of the deluge, and I’ve heard something of the damage and grief that a man of Bazz’s size can cause when he’s blundering in the fog. But for me it’s the jokes, the games of chess, the (ginger) beers, the sly charm, the righteous anger and the perfectly uncontradicted Marxism and spirituality that seemed to me to inform every word he spoke and frame he composed.
They say – well, someone does – that the best way to mourn a man is to carry on his work. It’ll take all of us and then some to do a half of what Bazz might have done. But that’s no reason not to try.
Tama Poata, Don Selwyn, John O’Shea, Wi Kuki Kaa, Michael King, and now Barry. There is a clearing where a forest once stood.
– Graeme Tuckett
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